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Jacobs Entertainment community meeting criticized for few details about downtown plans

By Kristen Hackbarth
Published: Last Updated on

Community members said they were frustrated by “puff-piece answers” and a lack of concrete details provided Monday night during an online meeting.

The meeting was with representatives of Jacobs Entertainment and members of the City of Reno’s planning and development staff to discuss the proposed Neon Line District.

More than 400 participants were registered for the virtual session, which was also broadcast live on YouTube.

A third-party moderator managed the two-and-a-half hour meeting, mixing in community questions submitted before the meeting with those entered into the chat and from people participating online.

Themes that emerged were affordable housing, the demolition of numerous downtown motels, lack of transparency, how limited information about the project has been shared, quality of life for those already living downtown and a focus on diversity within the development to create a livable neighborhood.

“Rather than a vision, can we get a commitment, or at the very least a timeline on when we can know for sure if these units will ever exist?”

At the start of the meeting, Jacobs Entertainments’ lawyer Garrett Gordon gave a presentation that included much of the same points that Jacobs has shared in the past, along with a list of the city’s existing plans that Jacobs’ says it’s adhering to as it makes plans for the Neon Line District.

“It’s going to take some time to move forward,” Gordon said when asked about more specifics about what the Colorado company is planning for the numerous vacant lots west of downtown owned by Jacobs Entertainment.

He also repeatedly reminded viewers of how much money Jeff Jacobs has donated to certain causes in the area.

Jacobs’ Jonathan Boulware, who heads up Nevada operations for the developer, followed with a defense of the company’s demolition of numerous weekly motels and the relocation of those who lived in them.

Many said they were unsatisfied with answers provided by the company’s representatives.

“Vision is something you have before you begin to tear things down. Five years is too long for a property to sit vacant,” said Ilya Arbatman. “You cannot make the argument that it’s nicer to live on the sidewalk than someplace with a door. We really just need some concrete plans.”

Gordon argued that development is complex and takes time, noting that the lot where Park Lane Mall used to be took years to develop. A timeline for Jacobs’ west downtown development has yet to be set, however.

“Let’s get some stuff built, guys,” said Kyle Hess. “If you’re going to market yourself as a billion dollar operation and do some development, we can’t be sitting here waiting.”

EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault. Darren is a graphic designer, meme artist, musician and political activist. When he is not doing freelance design or music, he is creating political editorial style memes, and co-running Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid.

Affordable housing efforts questioned

A number of advocates for people living homeless participated on the call and expressed frustration with what they said was the lack of commitment by Jacobs to affordable housing in the development.

Earlier this week the Reno Gazette Journal reported on Jacobs’ proposal for 1,000 units of affordable workforce housing units. That proposal was more of an idea for a public/private partnership: Jacobs would donate a parcel of land and the City of Reno and Reno Housing Authority would build hundreds of units of housing.

“We’ve always anticipated affordable workforce [housing] in this project… Workforce housing is critical,” Gordon said. But management of affordable housing shouldn’t be by private landlords, he added.

He said federal and state agencies have more expertise and experience in managing affordable housing and should take the lead on any such project. A good example, he said, is Reno Housing Authority’s recent development–using $1.5 million in funds donated by Jacobs–of the Willie J. Wynn Apartments, which have just 44 units and are designated for seniors.

Advocates argued that more than 500 residential units disappeared from the region when Jacobs purchased weekly motels and then demolished them. That left a shortage of low-income housing that has not been recovered.

“These units were not salvageable,” Gordon countered. He and Boulware cited mold, bed bugs, asbestos and roach infestations as reasons why the motels were not only uninhabitable but also not fit for rehabilitation.

‘Sketchy and bleak’

Others said the area left vacant by the developer’s demolitions is hurting the community.

Terry LoBianco, who said she was somewhat new to Reno, said the Neon Line District as it is now is “somewhat sketchy and bleak.”

“Rather than a vision, can we get a commitment, or at the very least a timeline on when we can know for sure if these units will ever exist?” Ana Perez-McKay asked in the Zoom chat.

Gordon said the company plans to break ground in spring of this year on its first building–condos at Arlington Avenue and Second Street.

Vacant lots that are part of the proposed Neon Line District.

Some people were concerned that buildings planned for the development would still give the neighborhood a bleak feeling.

Local architect Bradley Carlson said he was concerned about long walls of parking garages and urged the developer to consider its plans through the perspective of pedestrians and cyclists.

Walkability, green spaces, grocery stores and parks were all features community members asked to be included in plans for the district. Trees and shade structures were also a popular request. Boulware said after one summer of events at the development’s Glow Plaza they’d already discussed the addition of shade.

Others were concerned about schools: Would the developer be contributing any money to build a new school in the area or expand schools to accommodate a new, larger population in the area?

City officials say noticing, opportunity for input has been adequate

Early in the meeting the moderator addressed timing and transparency issues about the city’s development agreement with Jacobs that were a theme in questions submitted ahead of the meeting.

The city’s Jeff Limpert said adequate noticing and opportunity for comment were provided.

He also said the Oct. 13 City Council meeting was an opportunity for the community to provide input on the Jacobs development agreement.

“I need more details,” Council member Naomi Duerr said at the meeting. “We haven’t had [a public workshop] and that’s why I’m surprised we’re here today.”

Council member Jenny Brekhus both voted against the development agreement. Duerr initially voted against the agreement’s first reading but voted for it the second time it was presented to the council.

City records show that 57 people provided comments in opposition to the agreement during that meeting, with just five in favor and six concerned or neutral.

City Council members approved the agreement despite the community objections. Those using the chat function during the town hall expressed frustration and suspicion about the lack of concern city officials had for community input on the project. Some bantered about how much money each council member had received in donations from Jacobs Entertainment.

Others accused the city of collaborating with Jacobs for profit.

Barrie Lynn called Jacobs’ maneuvering “a debacle of epic proportions. This Neon Line District is facilitating a lucrative land deal to give Jacobs Entertainment assets with entitlements in an opportunity zone they can package and resell to other out of state developers. And Jacobs has city staff pitching their business scheme to us like their own personal PR firm. Appalling, but not at all a surprise.”

It was discussed during the meeting how the city of Reno also entered into a profit sharing agreement with Jacobs, profits that will be deposited into the city’s general fund.

Attorney Gordon gave 290 Keystone Avenue as an example of the profit-sharing plan.

Jacobs would combine two of its parcels at the location with one from the city and sell the trio as a package to fetch a higher price overall.

The land, he added, was more attractive to buyers as a package deal and because it lies within an opportunity zone. The city would receive 25% of any profits made on the deal.

Recordings of the town hall, chat transcripts and community questions with answers from city and Jacobs Entertainment staff will be posted on the city’s website in the coming days. Watch the meeting in the video below.

UPDATE: This story was updated to clarify council member Duerr’s votes on the development agreement Jacobs Entertainment presented to the council.

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